My father is never satisfied with the trees my mother hauls home from the gas station Christmas tree lot. Every year he produces the garden shears and goes about pruning. No one bothers trying to stop him anymore. We gather to watch dismembered tree pieces fall to the living room floor and agree when he says the thing looks much better. When he wanders off we fill the gaping holes with tinsel and reminisce about the time he broke out the saw.
Norman Rockwell doesn’t live here
In my family, we don’t have Christmas traditions so much as recurring patterns of well-established holiday behavior we have all come to expect. Like my mother corralling all seven of her unwilling kids down to the Styrofoam Santa Castle at the mall, where she has us line up for a group photo with poor bewildered St. Nick. Never mind that every one of us hates it. It wouldn’t be Christmas without her getting to watch gleefully while we argue about who has to sit on Santa’s lap.
Then there’s the drama and suspense of Christmas morning. Every member of the family must be in the room before any gift opening can begin. This inevitably means waiting, and waiting, for old sleepyhead dad to rouse himself. It is almost funny how tortured my younger siblings’ faces become. To and from my parents’ bedroom they march, then storm, their cries of “wake up!” becoming desperate. Not a single piece of wrapping paper is shred before noon. All in good fun, of course.
Of tables and toilets
Our best “traditions” happen around the dining room table Christmas evening. It’s strange, perhaps genetic, how the same scenes play out every year. A designated person bellows “supper!” until the nine of us, plus whatever brave guests have shown up, are all assembled in the seldom-used dining room; my mother is never thrilled to see that some of us are still in pajamas. After the youngest kid rattles off a questionably sincere, half-embarrassed grace, we all sit down and have a good giggle at how absolutely way too much gravy my brother slathers on his mashed potatoes.
Then we get going on one of our Christmas “discussions.” To my mother’s annual dismay, the topic of the night is always controversial and occasionally inappropriate; colorful language is not infrequently heard. I will never forget that very intelligent conversation about same-sex marriage. Or the talk of just whose fault it was that Christmas Eve all the toilets simultaneously overflowed. Just about the time my younger sister is ready to stomp out of the room, some kid blows out the candles in the centerpiece and my father snaps that the smoke hurts his ears. Every year. Like clockwork.
The heart of the matter
After I got married, I spent a Christmas or two at my in-laws’, where the holiday unfolds serenely, respectably. In the midst of the calm I realized how much I cherish the amputated Christmas trees and lively suppers. All year long I am aware, sometimes painfully, of mine and my family’s quirks and foibles, our common and individual failings. Our Christmas gatherings remind us that we have managed to reach a state of unconditional acceptance of one another. We look forward to our “traditions.” At the heart of them we celebrate that our mutual flaws are easily forgivable, that we love one another even through our worst recurring behaviour.